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First Baptist Church Mt. Juliet (Old)

Hold on Tight (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

There’s a good chance that everything I say for the next few weeks could be completely misunderstood. Now, some of you may say that’s a reflection on my ability as a preacher… or more accurately, on my inability as a preacher. And you very well may be right. But be that as it may, we’ve come to a section of 1 Corinthians that gives us great teaching about how to live out the love of Jesus in relationship with other believers. We’re in 1 Corinthians chapter 8, and this text has applications that speak to all sorts of confusing questions and difficult issues where we often don’t see eye-to-eye in the church. And as I’ve studied this section of 1 Corinthians, I see so much potential for it to bring clarity and to help us live out the gospel in practical and significant ways. I’m excited about us digging into this text, and I desire so much for us to benefit from its truth.

But like I said, there’s also a danger that everything I try to communicate the next few weeks will be misunderstood. So here’s what I want us to do. I want us to pray. I want us to pray together, like we do every week before the sermon. But I want to make sure that this prayer isn’t just the commercial break between the music and the message for you. It should never be that. This prayer should be the cry of our hearts, calling out to God, telling Him much we long to hear from Him… that we come to His Word expecting Him to speak to us… that we want Him to teach us and change us. And this prayer should also be us confessing how dependent we are on God… confessing that His Spirit is the only one who can sharpen our minds and soften our hearts and teach us spiritual truth with the spiritual power to change our lives. So will you ask God to pour out His Spirit and pour out His grace and teach us and change us? Will you pray with me?

Let’s read 1 Corinthians chapter 8. We’re going to read all 13 verses and then spend 3 weeks digging into them. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Paul writes, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

            “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

            “However, not all posses this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

            Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you are thinking, “Andy, are you sure this is the text you were talking about it when you said it could be easily misunderstood and that it had great application? Because as far as I can see, Paul’s talking about food sacrificed to idols. That doesn’t seem very confusing – I don’t know how you’d misunderstand it – and it doesn’t seem to apply to us – I don’t know anybody who offers slabs of meat to statues of wood and gold.” And you’re right, the specific issue of food sacrificed to idols isn’t a big deal in our particular culture. But the truth of the text isn’t limited to food sacrificed to idols. It’s much bigger than that. And the heart of this text speaks directly to our church and our lives today, so we need to make sure we dig in and see it.

            A good place for us to start is for us to talk about why this issue was such a big deal for the Corinthians. I’ve told you before that the city of Corinth had a temple built to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. What I haven’t told you is that that wasn’t the only temple in Corinth. In fact, Corinth had lots of temples for lots of false gods. There was a temple for Poseidon, the sea god, a temple for Apollo, the sun god, a temple for Hermes, the god of travel, a temple for Isis, the goddess of fertility. So Corinth was full of temples. And a major part of temple worship was to offer animal sacrifices to these gods. And the way that worked is that people would take their animal to the priest at the temple, and the priest would separate the animal into three parts. One part was burnt as an offering to the gods. The second part was given to the priest as his payment. He could eat it if he wanted, or a lot of times, he would sell it in the market to make some extra money. And then the third part of the sacrifice was given back to the family that had brought the animal. They would take it home with them and eat it at a family celebration like a wedding or a birthday or the rare occasion where the University of Tennessee won a basketball game.

            And here’s what’s so important for understanding our text: Between the meat that was sold in the market and the meat that was served in people’s homes for birthdays and weddings and celebrations, it was nearly impossible to live in Corinth without being faced with the decision of whether or not you would eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. And we learn in our text that this had become a very divisive issue for the Corinthian church. On one side, you had Team Meat saying, “It’s fine to eat the meat.” On the other side, you had Team No Meat saying, “It’s a horrible sin to eat the meat.” And you can see in our text why each of them said what they said. Team Meat was saying, “Look, Aphrodite isn’t real. Apollo isn’t real. Hermes isn’t real. They’re false gods. They don’t exist. And that means they can’t affect this meat. Even if it’s been sacrificed in their temple, it’s still just meat, because they aren’t real, and if they aren’t real, they can’t change the meat. Not to mention, if God didn’t want us to eat this meat, why did He make the filet so tender and the ribeye so tasty, and why did He ever allow Ruth’s Chris to come into existence?” No, they didn’t actually say that last part. That was just me. But Team Meat was saying, “We know those gods aren’t real, so we can eat this meat, because it doesn’t belong to those gods.”

            On the other hand, Team No Meat was saying, “This meat has been offered to idols. And idolatry is a horrible sin. We know, because we used to go to those temples, and we used to worship those idols. And God saved us out of that. And there’s absolutely no way that we should ever have anything to do with that again. And neither should you. It’s wrong for me to eat the meat. And it’s wrong for you to eat the meat.”

So you’ve got this major standoff in the Corinthian church. And they write to Paul and ask him to weigh in on the issue. This is one of several questions from the Corinthians that Paul answers in the second half of this letter. And just so you know, this particular answer actually runs through all of chapters 8, 9, and 10. And part of the reason I said it would be easy for us to misunderstand this text is because Paul doesn’t answer their question “Yes” or “No.” He answers their question “Yes and no.” And some of us are going to tend to focus on the yes. Others of us are going to tend to focus on the no. And if that’s all you hear, then you’re not hearing this text. Because the heart of this text is not just the yes or the no; it’s the reason behind both. So let’s walk through these verses and see the reason why Paul says, “Yes and no.” Verse 1, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’” That phrase, “All of us possess knowledge,” is probably something that Team Meat wrote in their letter to Paul. And you can see what they’re saying. They’re saying, “We all know idols aren’t real. We have this knowledge, and this knowledge sets us free to eat the meat.”

Skip down to verses 4-6, and you’ll see part of Paul’s response, “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” So in those verses Paul is telling Team Meat, “You’re right. There is only one God, and these idols aren’t real. Your knowledge is right.” Now read verse 8. Paul writes, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Paul tells Team Meat again, “You’re right. Eating meat doesn’t make you any better, and eating meat doesn’t make you any worse. It doesn’t matter at all. You’re perfectly free to eat it or not. Your knowledge is right.” And if that’s all you read, you would probably think Paul is saying Team Meat is right and Team No Meat is wrong. But that’s not quite the case. It’s true that Team No Meat is wrong. Paul has clearly said, “Your view of idols is wrong, and your view of meat is wrong.” They were making up rules based on fear, and their fear was based on incorrect knowledge. And Paul tells them that. Idols aren’t anything. Meat sacrificed to idols is still just meat. Everybody’s free to eat it. And you’re wrong if you make up a rule telling them not to. So Team No Meat has incorrect knowledge. They’re lacking when it comes to the truth.

But that doesn’t mean that Team Meat is completely right, either. Their knowledge is correct, but they’re still lacking something. Look back up at verse 1 with me. Paul quotes Team Meat as saying “All of us possess knowledge,” and then look at his response, “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.”

Paul basically tells them, “Your knowledge is right, but knowledge by itself isn’t enough. If all you have is knowledge, then your knowledge will puff you up and make you proud and arrogant, and you’ll be worse off than if you didn’t know anything. On the other hand, love will build other people up. If you have love, you’ll care about other people, and you’ll want to use your knowledge to help them. Love means that you don’t use your knowledge to make yourself look good. You use your knowledge for other people.” In fact, without love, your knowledge is actually worthless. Look at verse 2, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” If you’ve become this person who’s proud about having all the right answers, but you don’t know how to love, then you don’t even know what you think you know. And then Paul drives it home in verse 3, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The most important thing in your entire life is for you to be in right relationship with God… for you to know God and be known by God. And the only way that happens is if God’s grace changes your heart and causes you to love Him the way you should. And the Bible tells us that if you love God that way, you’ll start to love other people that way. So think about what that means. That means if you don’t love other people, then you don’t really love God. And if you don’t love God, you’ve missed what matters most, and you are completely foolish, and you don’t know anything. In other words, if you have knowledge but no love, then your knowledge is worthless because you don’t know what matters most.

And that’s exactly what Team Meat was missing. They were lacking love. They were just using their knowledge for themselves… to get what they wanted… to say, “Hey, we can eat meat if we want to. And we can show you chapter and verse to prove it.” It was all about them and what they wanted. And they were failing to love their brothers and sisters in Christ… they were failing to build them up and help them grow. Paul explains how terrible knowledge without love is in verses 7-11. Start in verse 7 with me, “However, not all posses this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” Paul says, “Yes, you know the truth. But have you thought about your brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t understand that truth yet? Have you thought about the ones who struggled with idolatry and were saved out of that? For some of them, their consciences are still weak. They’re still immature believers. And you’re making it harder on them.” Look at verses 9-11, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” Paul says, “Yes, you have the right to eat anything you want. But you shouldn’t be thinking about your rights. You should be thinking about how your rights might impact your weaker brothers and sisters. You may tempt them to turn away from Christ and turn back to idolatry. And then, your knowledge won’t be useful at all. Your knowledge will be destructive. It will destroy your weaker brother.”

So even though Team No Meat is wrong, that doesn’t mean Team Meat is completely right. Team No Meat has incorrect knowledge, but Team Meat has incomplete knowledge. They have failed to combine their knowledge with love, and that makes their knowledge useless and destructive.

So Paul tells Team No Meat, “Your knowledge is incorrect. You need to know God better and grow stronger in your faith.” And he tells Team Meat, “Your knowledge is incomplete. You need to love God more and love people more.”

And this is exactly why I said from the very beginning today that it would be so easy for us to misunderstand this text… Because every single one of us tends more toward one team or the other. We don’t struggle with meat sacrificed to idols, but we bring that mindset to a hundred other issues. Some of us are like Team No Meat. We haven’t grasped the full truth of the gospel and the freedom that it gives us. And we live in fear of doing the wrong things, so we come up with all these rules about how we should live. And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but the rules we come up with… they aren’t God’s rules. They’re our rules. And then to make it even worse, we start to think we have to follow those rules to be right with God. And maybe without realizing it, we’re trusting our rules more than we’re trusting Jesus. And then to top it all off, we try to make everybody else follow our rules. And we usually send the message that they can’t be right with God unless they follow our rules. Somehow, we’ve made our rules more of an authority for them than God and His gospel. That is the very essence of legalism. And some of us tend in that direction.

Others of us are more like Team Meat. We’ve grasped the truth. We know the freedom we have in Christ. But instead of using that knowledge to build others up… instead of turning that knowledge out in love toward others… we’ve turned it in on ourselves, and we’ve grown proud. We flaunt our rights and our freedoms, and we refuse to give an inch for anybody. We beat people up with our knowledge, and we’re completely loveless.

And here’s the danger for misunderstanding this text: Whichever group you tend toward, you’re going to be tempted to just focus on what Paul says to the other group. If you’re a legalist, you’ll read this chapter and say, “See, Paul tells them, ‘Don’t eat the meat.’ So they should follow my rules.” And you’ll ignore the fact that Paul says to you, “You’re wrong. Your knowledge is incorrect, and your fears are unfounded, and your rules are unbiblical, and you need to know the gospel better!” On the other hand, if you’re more loveless, you’ll read this chapter and say, “See, those legalists are weak, immature believers. Paul says I’m right, so they should listen to me.” And you’ll ignore the fact that Paul says to you, “No, you’re not right. Your head’s right, but your heart’s not right. If you don’t know the love of Jesus well enough in the gospel to love your legalistic brothers and sisters even when they’re wrong, then you don’t know anything.”

So I’m asking all of us, “Let this text speak to you, not about other people.” God has something to say to you. He wants to expose your heart and show you which side you struggle with, and He wants to purify your heart and help you overcome it. So over the next two weeks, we’ll spend a week focusing on each side of the issue. Next week, we’ll focus on what this text says to the legalist inside us. And the week after that, we’ll focus on what this text says about our lack of love.

But before we do that, in the rest of our time this week, I want us to focus on two guidelines for applying this text in the right way, and then two overarching truths that speak to all of us, no matter which side of the issue we struggle with. So let’s start with the two guidelines. First, this text applies primarily to major issues that could destroy someone’s faith, not every little disagreement we have. Look at verses 10-11, “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” Make sure you hear what’s at stake in those verses. The concern is that the weaker brother may be tempted to turn away from Christ and go back to idolatry and worshipping false gods. He would be abandoning the gospel, and his faith would be destroyed as a false faith that didn’t persevere and didn’t keep trusting Jesus.

And the reason I point this is out is because very rarely is that the case when two sides disagree in the church. Usually, both sides are convinced they’re right. Neither one is going to stop believing the gospel. They just think the other side is wrong. For example, imagine that we’re thinking about changing the color scheme in the sanctuary. And imagine that one group of people says, “No, we should never change anything. I’ll be offended if you change the color scheme.” And then another group says, “We need to change. It’s time to update. I’ll be offended if we don’t change.” Neither group can say, “Well, based on 1 Corinthians 8, you should do what I want so that you don’t offend me.” They can’t say that, because the color of this sanctuary is not a gospel issue. Nobody’s going to abandon the faith over earth tones, pastels, and primary colors. That’s just a matter of opinion. And that’s not what Paul’s talking about here. Now, we can still take a principle from this text and say we should love other people enough that we should put their desires before our own. But this text doesn’t mean that every time someone is offended, everybody else has to cater to them.

And that brings me to the second guideline for applying this text. This text applies primarily to our personal lives, not to a corporate gathering. Here’s what I mean. Paul tells the stronger brothers, “When you’re out in people’s homes (in other words, in your personal life) don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, because it may cause your weaker brother to stumble.” But then part of Paul’s teaching to the church as a whole is that it really is okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because idols aren’t real. In other words, when the church comes together corporately, Paul doesn’t worry about offending the weaker brother with the truth. He wants to teach them the truth and help them become stronger brothers. So what we see is that in their personal lives, the stronger brother should defer to the weaker brother. But corporately, we want to teach everyone the truth and help them grow strong on the truth.

And the reason I believe it’s so important for us to see these two guidelines is because I’ve known of people who try to manipulate this weaker brother text and use it as a weapon to get what they want. For example, I’ve literally heard people come to a disagreement before and say, “Well, I guess I’m just the weaker brother on this, so I need you to think about me here.” Let me translate that for you: “I’m playing my ‘weaker brother card’ so that you have to do what I want.” First of all, if you know you’re the weaker brother, that’s not something to be proud of. Learn the truth and grow strong on the gospel. And second, if you’re telling us you’re the weaker brother, our responsibility corporately is to teach you the truth just like Paul does. Now, in our personal lives, we all want to love each other enough to defer to each other. But corporately, we all want to grow strong on the truth, and we won’t compromise the teaching of the truth out of fear of offending a weaker brother. Does that make sense?

Let me give you a hypothetical example that will hopefully make both of these guidelines clear. Imagine that someone in the church says, “I believe that the Lord’s Supper should always be served at the front of the sanctuary with a white cloth over the table. I’ll be offended if we don’t do that.”

Well, our first question is, “Is this an issue that will lead you away from Jesus? Will it destroy your faith in the gospel if we serve the Lord’s Supper from the back?” If not, then we’ve just got a difference of opinion, and that person probably shouldn’t be so easily offended over a difference of opinion.

But imagine that person says, “Yes, the location of the Lord’s Supper table is a gospel issue and it will destroy my faith if it’s not up front.” What do we do then? We teach on why the Lord’s Supper matters. It matters because the bread and the cup remind us of the body and blood of Jesus. And when those two elements are present, and our hearts are focused purely on the sacrifice of Jesus, the other details don’t matter. And we want to teach that truth, because if people are thinking the location of the table is what matters in the Lord’s Supper, then they don’t understand what the Lord’s Supper’s about. And we’re not okay with them not knowing what the Lord’s Supper’s about. We should love them too much to leave them confused about that truth.

So we don’t change our corporate practice based on an individual misunderstanding. We teach the truth corporately to overcome that individual misunderstanding. And before we move on, I hope you can see why it would actually be impossible to base corporate practices on individual misunderstandings. Imagine that we said, “Okay, that person needs to have the table up front, so we’ll just move it up front.” But then imagine someone else comes and say, “No, I’ll be offended if the table’s not in the back.” What do we do then? And imagine a third person comes and says, “I’ll be offended in we don’t observe the Lord’s Supper exactly the way Jesus did. We should take out all the pews and recline at tables and dip a loaf of bread into a common cup of wine.” What do we do now? We’ve got three different people with three mutually exclusive preferences, all saying they’ll be offended if we don’t cater to their preferences. I’ll tell you what we do. We teach the truth corporately, so that we grow strong on the gospel, and we all get over our silly non-gospel, weaker brother issues and hang-ups.

And I know the Lord’s Supper is just a hypothetical example. But I hope you can see the application to all sorts of other areas. This text is not a weapon that allows the weakest brother with the most issues and the most rules to manipulate an entire church. This text is a call for the strong brothers to love the weak brothers in their personal lives by deferring to them when it comes to major matters that could threaten their faith.

With those guidelines in place, let’s move on to two overarching truths. The first truth is that God wants both your head and your heart. Think about our text again. Team Meat’s head is right. They have the right knowledge. But their heart isn’t right. They aren’t loving their brothers and sisters in Christ. And Paul tells them that’s not good enough. God wants both your head and your heart. On the other hand, Team No Meat may have the right heart. They want to make sure they’re being faithful to God, so they aren’t eating the idol meat. But their head isn’t right. They’re confused about the true power of the gospel. And Paul tells them that’s not good enough. In fact, he calls them weak. They need to know the gospel better and grow strong on the truth of the gospel. God wants both your head and your heart. God deserves all of you. It’s not enough to know the right answers if your heart’s not right. You can know the right answers and still live the wrong way. And it’s not enough to have a sincere heart if your head’s not right. You can be sincere and still be sincerely wrong. God wants every bit of you – head and heart – to be transformed by the gospel.

And that brings us to our second overarching truth. This truth is the big idea for the whole text, and we’re going to come back to it over and over. You must hold on to Jesus and His gospel and let go of everything else. Think about the weaker brothers. The danger is that they’re going to trust something more than they trust Jesus and His gospel. They’re going to trust their rules and their behavior and their not-eating-meat to make them right with God instead of trusting Jesus alone. And the point for them is that they have to hold on to Jesus and His gospel and let all that other stuff go.

And then think about the stronger brothers. The danger is that they’re going to love something more than they love Jesus and His gospel. They’re going to love their freedom and their rights more than they love the work of the gospel in the lives of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And the point for them is that they have to hold on to Jesus and His gospel and let all that other stuff go.  

So the weaker brothers need to trust Jesus and His gospel more. And the stronger brothers need to love Jesus and His gospel more. And that’s why Paul’s answer in this chapter is both yes and no. It’s, “Yes, weaker brothers, you should learn to eat the meat, because you trust Jesus and His gospel more than you trust your rules.” And, “No, stronger brothers, you shouldn’t eat the meat, because you love Jesus and His gospel more than your love your rights.” So whichever side of the issue we fall on, whether we struggle with being legalistic or being loveless, the main truth is the same for all of us. For all of us, we need to hold on to Jesus and His gospel and let go of everything else.

And I pray that we will. I pray that over the next few weeks, God will help us grow stronger and stronger on the gospel. I pray that we will trust Jesus and His gospel. I pray that we will love Jesus and His gospel. And I pray that we will hold on to Jesus and His gospel and let go of everything else.

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